‘VIEWS’: On writing Toronto
“Places are fragmentary and inward-turning histories, pasts that others are not allowed to read, accumulated times that can be unfolded but like stories held in reserve, remaining in an enigmatic state, symbolizations encysted in the pain or pleasure of the body. ‘I feel good here’: the well-being under-expressed in the language it appears in like a fleeting glimmer is a spatial practice”
–Michel de Certeau
“The city has changed so much. Entire eras no longer exist…You go to an intersection and there’s no resemblance to the intersection you knew. So I began to think of those palimpsests of buildings and how one might try to remember. How does one keep alive the ghost city?”
SB: I met Lucy in Montreal when she was part of the tour we did for my first book, Pony Castle, in the fall of 2015. At another reading in Toronto, she read a story from her first book, The Motion, which was actually set in Toronto, but (because she’s British) I didn’t understand her connection to Canada until I was visiting family in Germany a few months later and stopped by to do a reading in Berlin, where she now lives. Over several bottles of wine, we realized that we had a similar pattern of resettling frequently, and I was excited to find that her new book, WAVES, which came out in April, is based on the time she lived in Toronto in her early twenties. I messaged her to talk about her book, and our conversation grew organically into one about space, memories, and identity, and the one city we both feel tied to.
LK: When I was in Toronto for a couple of days during the tour we did last fall, it was interesting because I had already been back to visit several times since moving away, but that trip was my first time bringing someone else with me. And so it really felt like I was experiencing the city in a new way, I was suddenly married, I was showing my town off to this other person who I desperately wanted to like it. And I was noticing all these things I hadn’t viewed as unusual before, seeing them through his eyes, realising how strange and specific my life had been while I was living there and finally feeling able to contextualise it all in some way that felt removed from my current self.
As we were moving around, I was telling stories all the time, saying, ‘this is the mall where I wanted to die’ or, ‘I used to come down to this beach and write insane poems’ or, ‘I used to know the homeless people on that corner’ and so I think I was subconsciously developing the landscape for what would become WAVES. (The actual story I tell in the book is something I had been wanting to write about for five years, but until recently had never been able to do so.) I really wanted my version of Toronto, my views from the six, if you will (sorry), to be an important part of that story, because it was and is something that feels crucial to my development as a person and a writer. I think of Toronto as the place that accepted me, for me, and I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that feeling living anywhere else.
I remember after the reading we did at Type Books, Guillaume [a mutual friend] was sort of laughing at me at the bar, saying ‘You really feel this deep connection to Toronto, I don’t get it.’ And I mean, that makes sense, he’s Quebecois, so he’s almost pre-programmed to feel that way, but we were actually sitting with the person I based one of the main characters off of in WAVES and I was trying to explain; So much happened to me here, these people are my family, there’s no reason why you would just get it… And so I think, in a way, my writing this book also felt like a response to that type of thinking. Like, let me help you understand why I am like this and why I love this place.
Does that make any sense to you?
I think it’s interesting that our paths have overlapped a lot, we’ve both lived in Toronto and Montreal and we’ve both lived in Germany, although never in any of these places at the same time, I’m pretty sure. You mentioned the Dufferin Mall in Pony Castle and I mentioned the Galleria Mall in WAVES. These feel, to me, like kind of weird things to have in common.
SB: I’m really so happy to hear you talk about Toronto like that and it made reading WAVES especially enjoyable for me, having lived in this city for 5 years with a growing fondness. People and places can be elevated to something mythical the more you talk about them and the more specific you get, and I think you achieved that in WAVES. There’s a precariousness in relying on places that have built-in mystique, like New York or Paris. I think it can promote laziness. And I have a hard time being compelled by those cities in contemporary literature; they have earned their status, but in writing they can sort of feel flattened by over-use … no shade to whoever writes about those cities though.
In WAVES you worked with more than knowing and describing Toronto intimately, you observed how your body, emotions and memories reacted to different spaces. It made me think about the ways that I interact with space here in this city and places I lived in the past, and how they have shaped my sense of self.
I think the city you live in becomes a character in your life that you build a relationship with. It’s almost like a relationship with a person. You have good days, you have bad days, you dream about settling down, you can’t wait to break up. The difference is everyone around you is in a relationship with that person too. I often find myself defending Toronto in conversation. There’s this very popular idea that Toronto ‘tries to be like NY but fails’ which I don’t agree with. Toronto is a ‘vague’ city, nothing feels fully formed, it doesn’t have a ‘brand’ (as opposed to Montreal) which is why it’s so easy to project that idea. I talk about this a lot with [my boyfriend] Matt, who does draw that NY comparison and feels slightly beleaguered by the ‘lack of character/history’ here. But I would argue that that kind of city actually offers you more of a canvas, more freedom to create exactly what you want, or to discover what that might be. It doesn’t feel restrictive to me, in the same way that LA doesn’t. I think that’s why so many people are moving to LA (besides lower rent and the v good quality of life)––the city just feels so wide open to project whatever you want on to it, and that’s exciting to me.
It is funny that our paths have overlapped so much. We should really draw some kind of timeline to see if/when we were actually in the same places. Remember when you and Oscar and Matt were at Heathrow airport at the same time and had no idea until you saw it on Instagram later? I like thinking about how that might have happened before.
I’m curious about your relationship with Berlin and Montreal and England (I’m not sure where you lived there), especially in comparison to Toronto. Do you feel like you could live here again? When you were here on the reading tour, how had your feelings changed?
LK: Oh, so I guess our time in Toronto did overlap a little so we probably at least passed each other in the street. That is a nice thing to think about. And yes, I would definitely come back to live there if I could. Maybe not right at this moment, because I feel like there are other places I want to learn about, but at some time in my life, I would love to. Definitely.
Okay, trying to think about these other places.
So the time period between deciding to move to Berlin and actually being in Berlin was less than three months. And I’d never been to Berlin before we got here. I’d been to Germany once. I’d known Oscar [my then boyfriend, now husband] for just over a year when we decided we were going to move away together. It seems really brave and/or crazy to think about it now, but I don’t think it really felt particularly worrisome at the time. It was just like, oh wow, things feel better and easier when we’re together so let’s do that instead of the alternative. It’s basically the first time I’ve ever made my life about someone else besides just myself and so that obviously alters my experience of being here. I must have less of an emotional connection to Berlin itself because the main focuses of my attention are my work and the people I’m close to… the city’s role is sort of in the background a lot of the time, but I think Berlin almost lends itself to that…I mean, so many people who live here don’t really speak German, and it’s totally normal to have some vague type of employment, to be freelance, to work from home, to be liminal in whatever way. When I think about leaving Berlin, it feels like it will be a natural conclusion, it has always been coming. I never really expected to be here for a long time. I’m lucky though. I think I’ve been able to live a great version of my life while I have been here.
Montreal, for me, was so much about that supreme type of youth when you’re out there in the world by yourself for the first time and you’re coming to understand that there is so much stuff you just don’t know and that also, maybe even, most of what you think you know is irrelevant and/or completely wrong. When I go back there, it’s hard to experience the place as anything other than a 19 year old eating a bagel on a craigslist bike, with a bag full of literary biographies, wearing a purple nylon American Apparel dress…I sort of don’t want to spend too much time in Montreal now, because I don’t want to paint over those memories. I like the way they look from here.
My relationship with England is very strange, I think. For as long as I can remember, I always knew I was going to leave. I never felt like I could be who I wanted to be in that country, and I’ve never really been able to identify why that is…
What is your relationship with Germany like now? I know you were here as a child and then your family left for Canada but I can’t remember why exactly that happened? Do you ever think about what your life would be like, what you would be like, had you stayed?
SB: I know what you mean about not wanting to paint over memories. You want to freeze time in certain places because then it will always be this perfectly preserved feeling-space of what used to be, and who you were. Even if what you remember isn’t even that good-feeling…
After I left Montreal, I was really surprised by how little I missed it and wanted to visit. In fact, every time I visited I felt horribly anxious and afraid to run into anyone. Towards the end of my time living there, I felt like I had to radically change my lifestyle because I was having so many health problems and it felt like they didn’t have room to exist in my life there. Like, I had no idea how to even talk about it with anyone because all everyone (including myself) seemed to do was go to parties and have sex and drink shitty wine. I was 21, dropped out of school because I was so sick, and made a joke out of it, like how school just wasn’t for me and I needed something different, and then I just left that city.
But a lot of my good friends have moved to Toronto since then, and the last time I was in Montreal I had discovered Xanax and felt very calm the entire week, which I think ‘broke the spell’ or reprogrammed something in my brain. Now I can visit and feel (relatively) safe and have a clearer knowing of ‘what was then’ and ‘what is now’.
But I actually have a strange sense of pain about every place I’ve ever lived in (except for Japan which is where I lived until I was three and have 0 memories of). My family has always moved around so much (Toronto is the only city I’ve lived in for more than 5 consecutive years), my parents are both professors but it didn’t occur to me until much later that that isn’t really a logical reason for why we moved all the time. I’m a sentimental person though, and I think I’m in constant mourning of certain aspects the places I’ve lived in provided me. It’s also mourning, in a super abstract way, the person I could have become if I had stayed. But I generally don’t think about that and so it just remains a vague sense of loss. I’ve also lost many friends over the years which is sad. I’m pretty sure that if I want to avoid that pain association with Toronto, I have to stay here forever.
My friend Nicole, who moved to LA a couple of months ago, texted me this today:
And to be honest, I get it. Despite how easy it is to put down, how unromantic it seems at first glance––for me, there is just something about Toronto.
LK: I agree. And I mean, it’s thrilling, to me, to be able to write about it. Ever since I left the city…
Lucy K Shaw is the author of The Motion (421 Atlanta, 2015) and most recently, WAVES (Second Books, 2016)